Seek the truth for yourself, and I will meet you there.”
That was the last thing Josh ever said to me. He said it ironically, attempting to sound deep while simultaneously making fun of people who attempt to sound deep. He was drunk and high. And he was a good friend.
The most transformational moment of my life occurred when I was nineteen years old. My friend Josh had taken me to a party on a lake just north of Dallas, Texas. There were condos on a hill and below the hill was a pool, and below the pool was a cliff overlooking the lake. It was a small cliff, maybe thirty feet high—certainly high enough to give you a second thought about jumping, but low enough that with the right combination of alcohol and peer pressure that second thought could easily vanish.
Shortly after arriving at the party, Josh and I sat in the pool together, drinking beers and talking as young angsty males do. We talked about drinking and bands and girls and all of the cool stuff Josh had done that summer since dropping out of music school. We talked about playing in a band together and moving to New York City—an impossible dream at the time.
We were just kids.
“Is it okay to jump off that?” I asked after a while, nodding toward the cliff over the lake.
“Yeah,” Josh said, “people do it all the time here.”
“Are you going to do it?”
He shrugged. “Maybe. We’ll see.”
Later in the evening, Josh and I got separated. I had become distracted by a pretty Asian girl who liked video games, which to me, as a teenage nerd, was akin to winning the lottery. She had no interest in me, but she was friendly and happy to let me talk, so I talked. After a few beers, I gathered enough courage to ask her to go up to the house with me to get some food. She said sure.
As we walked up the hill, we bumped into Josh coming down. I asked him if he wanted food, but he declined. I asked him where I could find him later on. He smiled and said, “Seek the truth for yourself, and I will meet you there!”
I nodded and made a serious face. “Okay, I’ll see you there,” I replied, as if everyone knew exactly where the truth was and how to get to it.
Josh laughed and walked down the hill toward the cliff. I laughed and continued up the hill toward the house.
I don’t remember how long I was inside. I just remember that when the girl and I came out again, everyone was gone and there were sirens. The pool was empty. People were running down the hill toward the shoreline below the cliff. There were others already down by the water. I could make out a couple guys swimming around. It was dark and hard to see. The music droned on, but nobody listened.
Still not putting two-and-two together, I hurried down to the shoreline, gnawing on my sandwich, curious as to what everyone was looking at. Halfway down, the pretty Asian girl said to me, “I think something terrible has happened.”
When I got to the bottom of the hill, I asked someone where Josh was. No one looked at me or acknowledged me. Everyone stared at the water. I asked again, and a girl started crying uncontrollably.
That’s when I put two-and-two together.
It took scuba divers three hours to find Josh’s body at the bottom of the lake. The autopsy would later say that his legs had cramped up due to dehydration from the alcohol, as well as to the impact of the jump from the cliff. It was dark out when he went in, the water layered on the night, black on black. No one could see where his screams for help were coming from. Just the splashes. Just the sounds. His parents later told me that he was a terrible swimmer. I’d had no idea.
It took me twelve hours to let myself cry. I was in my car, driving back home to Austin the next morning. I called my dad and told him that I was still near Dallas and that I was going to miss work. (I’d been working for him that summer.) He asked, “Why; what happened? Is everything all right?” And that’s when it all came out: the waterworks. The wails and the screams and the snot. I pulled the car over to the side of the road and clutched the phone and cried the way a little boy cries to his father.
I went into a deep depression that summer. I thought I’d been depressed before, but this was a whole new level of meaninglessness—sadness so deep that it physically hurt. People would come by and try to cheer me up, and I would sit there and hear them say all the right things and do all the right things; and I would tell them thank you and how nice it was of them to come over, and I would fake a smile and lie and say that it was getting better, but underneath I just felt nothing.
I dreamed about Josh for a few months after that. Dreams where he and I would have full-blown conversations about life and death, as well as about random, pointless things. Up until that point in my life, I had been a pretty typical middle-class stoner kid: lazy, irresponsible, socially anxious, and deeply insecure. Josh, in many ways, had been a person I looked up to. He was older, more confident, more experienced, and more accepting of and open to the world around him. In one of my last dreams of Josh, I was sitting in a Jacuzzi with him (yeah, I know, weird), and I said something like, “I’m really sorry you died.” He laughed. I don’t remember exactly what his words were, but he said something like, “Why do you care that I’m dead when you’re still so afraid to live?” I woke up crying.
It was sitting on my mom’s couch that summer, staring into the so-called abyss, seeing the endless and incomprehensible nothingness where Josh’s friendship used to be, when I came to the startling realization that if there really is no reason to do anything, then there is also no reason to notdo anything; that in the face of the inevitability of death, there is no reason to ever give in to one’s fear or embarrassment or shame, since it’s all just a bunch of nothing anyway; and that by spending the majority of my short life avoiding what was painful and uncomfortable, I had essentially been avoiding being alive at all.
That summer, I gave up the weed and the cigarettes and the video games. I gave up my silly rock star fantasies and dropped out of music school and signed up for college courses. I started going to the gym and lost a bunch of weight. I made new friends. I got my first girlfriend. For the first time in my life I actually studied for classes, gaining me the startling realization that I could make good grades if only I gave a shit. The next summer, I challenged myself to read fifty nonfiction books in fifty days, and then did it. The following year, I transferred to an excellent university on the other side of the country, where I excelled for the first time, both academically and socially.
Josh’s death marks the clearest before/after point I can identify in my life. Pre-tragedy, I was inhibited, unambitious, forever obsessed and confined by what I imagined the world might be thinking of me. Post-tragedy, I morphed into a new person: responsible, curious,hardworking. I still had my insecurities and my baggage—as we always do—but now I gave a fuck about something more important than my insecurities and my baggage. And that made all the difference. Oddly, it was someone else’s death that gave me permission to finally live. And perhaps the worst moment of my life was also the most transformational.
Death scares us. And because it scares us, we avoid thinking about it, talking about it, sometimes even acknowledging it, even when it’s happening to someone close to us.
Yet, in a bizarre, backwards way, death is the light by which the shadow of all of life’s meaning is measured. Without death, everything would feel inconsequential, all experience arbitrary, all metrics and values suddenly zero.